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Gov. John Bel Edwards talks about the special session and other topics after the 2022 regular legislative session ended.

Gov. John Bel Edwards on Friday afternoon said he will not cancel next week's special session after a federal appellate court postponed a ruling that requires the Legislature to redraw the state's congressional districts.

Edwards said canceling the session would be premature because the postponement of the lower court order is not a final stay.

A 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel late Thursday night delayed the order from U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick that found that the state's new congressional district maps were not in compliance with the Voting Rights Act. After Dick's ruling, Edwards had called for a special session to begin Wednesday to address the issue.

“I remain hopeful that the 5th Circuit will vacate the administrative stay and allow Judge Dick’s well-reasoned decision and injunction to remain in place,” Edwards wrote in a Friday letter to legislative leaders. “I believe the Legislature can and should meet next week to enact maps that create a second majority-minority district.”

The congressional maps that were enacted by two-thirds of the Legislature earlier this year drew the districts to include voters who would favor sending five White Republicans and one Black Democrat to Congress. Supporters of a second majority-Black district say the second district is warranted because the state's population is one-third Black, according to the 2020 census.

Early Friday morning, Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, and House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, asked Edwards to rescind the special session, saying it was unnecessary, given the 5th Circuit’s late-night action.

Cortez said late Friday afternoon after learning of Edwards' decision that he understands the governor’s stance. But Cortez said he thinks the 5th Circuit stay will remain in place.

Cortez said the plaintiffs would “have to have real compelling evidence” to get the order lifted. “I feel confident the 5th Circuit has been keeping an eye on this for a long time,” he said.

Dick on Monday found that the congressional maps didn’t meet the criteria required in Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. She told legislators to try again and this time to include two districts, instead of one, from which minorities have a reasonable opportunity to elect the candidate of their choice.

She ordered lawmakers to come up with new election maps by June 20, which in turn caused Edwards to call a five-day special session to begin noon Wednesday and end by 6 p.m. Monday, June 20.

The 5th Circuit’s stay order was issued by a three-judge panel of the 17-seat appellate court. Sitting on the panel were Judges Jerry Smith, of Houston and appointed by President Ronald Reagan; Stephen A. Higginson, of New Orleans and appointed by President Barack Obama; and Don Willett, of Austin, Texas, and appointed by President Donald Trump. 

“I respect the 5th Circuit’s authority,” Edwards wrote in his letter. “Should the Court retain a stay over Judge Dick’s decision, I agree that further action of the Legislature should be delayed until the 5th Circuit can review the merits of her decision.”

The issue the 5th Circuit is considering, at least for the time being, is not which side’s arguments are constitutionally correct. Rather, the appellate court is focusing on the timeline of doing what Dick, who was appointed by President Barack Obama, says needs to be done and whether it can be done in time for Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin to stage the November elections.

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In her order refusing to delay her demand that legislators redraw the congressional maps, Dick called arguments that she had created an unworkable deadline “insincere and not persuasive.” She noted that both Cortez and Schexnayder had said in court that “Louisiana’s election calendar is one of the latest in the nation” and the deadlines that would impact voters don’t occur until October.

Most states hold their congressional primaries over the summer and the runoff on Nov. 8. Louisiana’s primary is Nov. 8 with runoffs Dec. 10. Qualifying to run is July 20-22. Early voting begins Oct. 25.

Dick’s ruling is “pretty airtight in my view,” said Democratic state Sen. Cleo Fields, a Baton Rouge lawyer. He sponsored one of the maps that would add a second majority-Black district.

How long it will take to get a final court decision is unclear, especially if the case makes it to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“I don’t think anybody was under any impression it wouldn’t be decided by the Supreme Court,” Fields said.

The lawsuit that led to Dick's ruling argues that the new map passed by the Legislature continues Louisiana’s “long history of maximizing political power for White citizens by disenfranchising and discriminating against Black Louisianans.” It notes that while Black residents make up 31.2% of the state’s voting-age population, Black voters control only around 17% of the state’s congressional districts. Meanwhile, White voters, who make up 58% of the population, form a majority in 83% — or five of six — districts.

Decades ago, the U.S. Supreme Court established a three-part test to determine whether a districting plan violates Section 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act.

First, plaintiffs must prove that the minority population is “sufficiently large and geographically compact” to support a map with a second majority-minority district. Next, they must prove that Black voters are “politically cohesive” and that White voters tend to vote as a bloc to defeat candidates preferred by Black voters.

Slidell Republican Sen. Sharon Hewitt, who played a major role in the maps on the Senate side, said Friday that rather than any final adjudication of the case, courts could allow congressional elections to proceed with the boundaries in place now.

“What has been happening in other states is the courts have said, 'Let’s conduct the elections, the congressional elections, based on the maps the Legislature just drew and litigate the merits (later),' ” Hewitt said, adding that some lawsuits over boundaries drawn in 2010 took eight or nine years to resolve.

“I would say I believe that the map that we passed is the best map and that it complies with all the federal laws and state laws,” Hewitt said.

Her counterpart on the House side, Rep. John Stefanski, R-Crowley, on Friday echoed Hewitt’s views about allowing elections to proceed using the map endorsed by lawmakers.

“From a time perspective, that is probably the most logical decision. We will have a full trial on the merits, but for the purpose of this election, let’s use the map that was passed,” he said.

Email Will Sentell at wsentell@theadvocate.com.